Getting the “Big Idea”: Including All Students in the Same Curriculum – Practical Tips for Teachers (No. 4 Part A)

By Dr Robert Jackson and Catia Malaquias

This is Part A of the fourth article in a series of short articles aimed at providing practical tips for teachers to improve the inclusiveness of their general education classrooms. You can read the earlier articles at SWJ IncludED and their respective titles and weblinks are also listed at the end of this article.

It is often said that “the gap is too big” for some students with disability, particularly a learning disability, to be included in a general education classroom.  This assumption is especially made in the high school context where many parents are advised by school staff that the student would be “completely out of their depth” in the general mainstream lesson and would be better off segregated from their mainstream peers in a special class or unit – this is all despite the research evidence clearly showing that students with disability are disadvantaged academically and socially by being segregated.

So how can your student be included in the mainstream lesson?  How can a student with basic counting skills be included in the calculus lesson?  Or the nuclear physics lesson?  Or the lesson analyzing the plot of Hamlet?  How can “differentiated instruction” apply?

To be really “included” in an activity, each participant must be doing the SAME core tasks as the other participants.  If tasks are performed together and shared by all students, the peer connection from that common and shared classroom experience is more likely to continue outside the classroom and into the community.   If students with disability are not included in the same lesson as their general mainstream peers then they are not being academically and socially connected to their classroom – at best they are just being physically included in the same geographic space – they are not being given the opportunity to maximise their academic and social development and outcomes.

First, let us take a step back for a reality check.  How many of us can describe what an electron shell is?  How about the intricacies of the plot of Hamlet?  How much complex calculus do we remember? Even though we did these subjects at school, most of this information has been lost but we are still considered to be educated people. We retain core information and concepts.  For example, we could probably define an atom, proton, neutron and electron.  We know that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.  We can do basic mathematics necessary for ordinary life.  We only know the more detailed information if we continue to use it in some form of specialization.  This means that we need to teach core information and concepts to all students, but we should not be concerned if not all information discussed is retained by all students.

So how can we do this?  Students with significant disabilities have been included in mainstream university courses in Canada and elsewhere for more than 20 years, so clearly high school inclusion in the curriculum is achievable.

A moment’s reflection shows that we all know how to include a wide range of skills and abilities – we do it all the time with our own families and friends.  Consider the backyard cricket game with four children aged from 5 to 15 years, plus mum, dad and grandma.  Depending on who is batting, the speed of bowling and difficulty level is adjusted, greater latitude is allowed for the less competent to succeed but minimal or no latitude is given for the most competent.  In effect, we have multi-level or differentiated teaching occurring with common core tasks or concepts.

This is the first principle of curricular inclusion.  Everyone is involved in the SAME lesson and each individual is challenged at their level.  However, we need to know what to teach and be clear on this before the lesson.

“The Big Idea”

When teaching any class or course there is usually:

  • core information and concepts essential to understanding the material (“the big ideas”);
  • development and generalisation of these core ideas into related areas; and
  • examples of the core ideas in operation.

Normally these three layers are mixed so the student has to remember and understand enough of the lesson to ensure that the core information is retained.  If they do not, then the core information may not be learned and the subject will make little or no sense.

So when preparing a lesson, Dr Patrick Schwarz, a leading international academic in inclusive education, says to ask yourself three questions.

  1. What do I want EVERY student to know (the core material or “Big Ideas”)?
  1. What do I want MOST students to know (extensions and challenges for most students)?
  1. What do I want SOME students to know (extensions for students working at the most advanced levels)?

Now if you are realistic, the core material or “Big Idea(s)” is normally only one or two key points per lesson.  We are now in an achievable area for any student, and if we do teach in this manner EVERY student will receive the core material or ‘big idea’ of the lesson.  As a teacher you can readily imagine how you could include any student in learning one or two points.

For a student who can only eye point, alternatives could be written on a page and the student has to look at the correct one to indicate learning.

A student with unknown capacity (for example multiple disabilities and little or no voluntary movement) could be assisted to point to the correct answer by a peer holding his or her hand.  We may not know exactly what that student understands, but they are involved in the lesson, their peers are learning critical life lessons and the class continues as it would in any other situation.

If a student has trouble retaining information, give the answer and get it back – all students benefit from the reinforcement of repetition!

In all situations, thinking through the “big ideas” and using peer involvement and flexible approaches, the regular lesson can proceed with everyone involved in that same lesson, and most importantly, ALL students will be gaining the core information necessary for life and ALL will be challenged at their level.  Everyone gains!


In Part B of this article, additional strategies will be discussed to make the lesson more achievable for all students, and in Part C, we will discuss Universal Design for Learning, a key curricular inclusion strategy used internationally.

Other articles in this series:

Creating An Inclusive Class Culture – Practical Tips For Teachers (N.o1)

Supporting Peer Connection in the Inclusive Class – Practical Tips For Teachers (No.2)

Less Is More: The Education Assistant – Practical Tips For Teachers (No.3)

Making the “Big Idea” Achievable: Including All students in the Same Curriculum – Practical tips for teachers (No. 4 part B)

Presenting the “Big Idea” for All: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) – Practical tips for teachers (No. 4 part C)

Summary of General Comment No 4 by the the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

UN Committee Clarifies Right to Inclusive Education.

*Dr Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Education at Curtin University in Western Australia, a registered Psychologist and a Director of Include.  You can connect with Dr Jackson on Twitter @include108 or through

*Catia Malaquias is a mother of three young children, a lawyer and the Founder of Starting With Julius.  You can connect with Catia on Twitter @CatiaMalaquias or on Facebook

[Cover photo © Tim Sackton]

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